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American exceptionalism has underpinned this country’s experiment in outer space since its beginnings; the Apollo astronauts launched toward the moon in the name of national glory, not pure scientific discovery. But when Trump invokes manifest destiny, his long record of bigotry and association with white supremacists starts to infuse America’s future in the cosmos. The use of language that defined a painful chapter in American history excludes people from an endeavor that, in recent decades, NASA has pushed to open to all. When leaders draw from that narrative, they don’t inspire the broadest participation in one of America's most impressive projects. They stunt the possibilities of the future instead.
A president’s words about space are, in part, a recruitment tool. In the 1960s, Kennedy's soaring rhetoric about the space race helped make NASA a destination for some of the country's most talented engineers. But the people who came to be involved in America’s burgeoning space effort, from astronauts and engineers to lawmakers and executives, were nearly all white men. When the Apollo 11 crew took off in the summer of 1969, only one woman was in the control room at Cape Canaveral, and she was white.
The space-shuttle era, which began in the early 1980s, was meant to change those demographics, at least for the astronaut corps. The space shuttles were roomy and made regular trips into space, and their larger crews became more representative of the American population. NASA flew its first female, Black, and Asian astronauts to space that decade. Inside the agency, women and people of color would have faced the same discrimination they might have in any other workplace of that era, but NASA cultivated an image as an equal-opportunity employer.
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In 2006, during the George W. Bush administration, NASA formally adopted a new vocabulary that many of its workers were already using as more women became astronauts: Spaceflight with astronauts would officially be known as “human” or “crewed,” not “manned.” Leland Melvin, a retired NASA astronaut, often uses this anecdote to convey the power of language: When he once asked a group of young children if any of them wanted to be astronauts, only boys raised their hands. The girls, they told him, thought the job was reserved for men. “From that point on, whenever I showed Neil Armstrong saying, ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,’ I always changed the language” to humankind, Melvin told me recently. “You just don’t know what little girl in that room is going to say, ‘Oh, that’s just for the men.’”
I wrote about this phenomenon last year, and when I asked NASA to comment, the agency was quick to rebuke the outdated use of “manned” spaceflight. “Now if we could just get others to follow suit,” a spokesperson told me. But when I asked NASA to comment this summer on the White House’s use of “manifest destiny,” it sidestepped the question. “We were excited to have the President and Vice President at Kennedy Space Center to witness the historic launch and capture this important moment in American history,” Matthew Rydin, a spokesperson for the NASA administrator’s office, wrote in an email. Earlier this year, after Trump used the term in his State of the Union address, Jim Morhard, NASA’s deputy administrator, by way of explanation for the president’s choice of words, tweeted a skewed interpretation of the concept. Manifest destiny, he said, “was the belief that the United States was destined to promote democracy & free enterprise across North America.”